Far worse than not realizing one’s dream is never to have dreamt at all. Connecting Moses, David and Martin Luther King.
Table for Five: Va’etchanan
Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist
The Lord was angry with me because of you, and He did not listen to me, and the Lord said to me, “It is enough for you. Speak to Me no more regarding this matter. Go up to the top of the hill and lift up your eyes westward and northward and southward and eastward and see with your eyes, for you shall not cross this Jordan.” -Deut. 3:26
Rabbi Benjamin Blech, Professor of Talmud, Yeshiva University
A month before his assassination Martin Luther King delivered one of his last sermons that he called “unfulfilled dreams.” It was based on the story of King David who more than anything else wanted to build a great temple to God. His dream was denied. King saw in this biblical tale the tragic understanding that “life is a continual story of shattered dreams.”
King gave numerous examples of heroic figures who failed to achieve their greatest wish. He did not yet know, although he feared it might be so, that he too would be among them. Just a month later he gave voice to that dread in his very last sermon on earth. This time he turned to Deuteronomy and the tragedy of Moses. The greatest leader of the Jewish people was allowed to go up to the mountaintop and to see the promised land – but only from a distance. The completion of the journey was denied to him. It was a fate that King intuited would be his as well. His comfort was the profound insight he had already expressed by way of the shattered dream of David: God reassured David that he would be blessed even if he did not achieve his goal simply because he dreamt the dream.
Perhaps this is the true meaning for us of Moses’ unsuccessful prayer. The tragedy of life doesn’t lie in not reaching our goal; it is far more in having no goal to reach. It isn’t a calamity to die with dreams unfulfilled; a true calamity is never to have dreams that can outlive us.
Adam Kligfeld, Senior Rabbi, Temple Beth Am
Ben Kingsley is no Charlton Heston. But in my eyes, he was a better, if less famous, Moses. In a made-for-TV movie from the ‘90s, Kingsley portrays a human, relatable, demonstrative and at-times weary Moses. One poignant scene, a profound media midrash, shows Moses weeping in the mourning tent for his sister Miriam. Outside, the Israelites clamor for water, disturbing his “shiva.” Distraught, Moses emerges from the tent, loses his composure, and strikes the rock rather than speak to it. Perhaps the rock got what the people were spared. (Is Moses’s displaced anger more a success than a sin?) Still, God punishes him severely.
Perhaps Moshe’s emotional memory of that scene informs our verse, where the pointed “because of you,” implicates the people for Moses’s sin then, and plight now, rather than Moses’s own lack of control. Rashi amplifies Moses’s pique: the verse means that Moses directly blames the Israelites for his never reaching Israel. Moses’s version of the narrative is preserved in Psalms (106:32), where the people are remembered for having provoked Moses’s ire towards them, thus inviting God’s wrath towards Moses.
Blame-games are as old as humanity, it seems. Deflecting responsibility, cleansing a sin by contextualizing it, and ignoring one’s own role in one’s fate happens not just to the average person. It is apparently a foible even of our greatest leader. Which means we can both empathize with Moses’s very-real pain and sense of injustice. For we have all been there. And, at the same time, we can aspire even higher.
Judy Gruen, Author, “The Skeptic and the Rabbi: Falling in Love with Faith”
Our hearts ache for Moshe reading these emotionally charged lines. He has led the Jews with superhuman emotional, physical, and spiritual strength for forty years yet is denied his last wish: to accompany the people into the Land of Israel. It feels unfair, but Ohr HaChaim explains that God could not allow it; anything that Moshe helped to develop or establish could not be destroyed. Moshe would have built the Temple, which was destined to be destroyed, though the Jewish people would be spared.
The generation entering the land would no longer live under the supernatural conditions that accompanied Moshe. In their land this new generation would live more according to natural law. Instead of manna falling from heaven, they would have to plant, plow, and reap. They would have to work hard. Joshua’s leadership would reflect the new reality.
These lines resonate for me on a deep level. Years ago, my eldest son read from this parasha for his bar mitzvah. I had gotten up from shiva for my mother just days before. She fervently wanted to attend her grandson’s bar mitzvah, but she also could not cross her Jordan. I cried that day in joy and sorrow, missing my mother but feeling her spirit. The family leadership had passed from my mother to me. V’etchanan is read on Shabbat Nachamu, the first Shabbat after Tisha B’Av, when the Haftarah from Isaiah promises, “Comfort, comfort My people.” One day we will be redeemed from all our sorrows.
Ilan Reiner, Architect & Author of “Israel History Maps”
At first, this might seem like a cruel punishment. Not only is Moses forbidden from entering the land, but it seems as if God is teasing him. Like showing a kid candy that s/he can’t have. All that Moses asked for was to cross over to “the good land.”
Moses wanted to enter the land of Israel. God orders him up the hilltop to view the land from afar. He’s told to look West, North, South and then East. Why look East? Isn’t East where Israel is camped now?
One can understand this by regarding “East” as the eastern part of Israel – Jericho and the west side of the Jordan valley. However, I prefer to regard this as looking back at where he came from and where Israel is camped now. God implies that even though Israel is the promised land, the “good land” depends on the people’s behavior. “How goodly are your tents, Jacob, your dwelling places, Israel!” (Numbers 24:5) The people’s actions make the land a good land. Yet Moses teaches us that we should always pray and strive to make it to Israel – our promised land.
My family and I have been blessed, as this is our first Shabbat in Israel, after making Aliyah / returning earlier this week. As we settle in the promised land, we keep looking in all directions, including where we came from – knowing that all lands are good, and their goodness depends on the goodness of the people dwelling there.
Rabbi Nicole Guzik, Sinai Temple
Analyzing this image of God, we might be a bit more forgiving of our own parenting ups and downs.
God is angry with the children of Israel, furious with Moses. Like teenagers sneaking in after curfew, conversation has flown out the window. And yet, one of the most important Torah lessons permeates through disappointment. Instead of leaving Moses with the agony of never seeing the Holy Land, God shows Moses what every child begs from their parent: the truth. God’s relationship with Moses could have ended with discontent. Yet, God quickly pivots, transitioning to teacher. A role model who understands that although truth is painful, a glimpse of the Holy Land is exactly what Moses needs to see.
Most psychologists explain that direct honesty, depending on the child’s age, is the best approach when handling a difficult conversation or situation. The child learns from the parent’s actions. If the parent speaks with sincerity, the child will follow. If the parent chooses to shield the child with lies and half-truths, the child picks up on every word. Parenting is a constantly moving ship. Some days we feel as if we are drowning through misunderstandings and slammed doors. But God reminds us that even the hardest of parenting moments holds the potential to be the most profound.
God’s relationship with Moses was far from perfect. But maybe, that is the example we are meant to follow. A parent that learns past anger, guides with forgiveness, teaches with honesty, and embraces with love.
With thanks to Rabbi Benjamin Blech, Adam Kligfeld, Judy Gruen, Ilan Reiner, and Rabbi Nicole Guzik
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